Current Affairs

Balliol joins the divestment drive

Balliol students have taken a stand on the sustainability of the college’s investment, pushing the College to reduce its endowment’s involvement fossil fuel exposure (FFE) “as far and as fast as is practicable”. With socially responsible investment practices more critical than ever, this is a positive step forward for Balliol which may kick-start a precedent for ecologically friendly investment strategies for the wider university.

It is a group of students from the Balliol Divestment Campaign, which encompasses members of both the JCR and the MCR, who have been lobbying for this change. They have worked with the Development Committee and Investment Committee at Balliol to achieve what Chair of the Investment Committee Richard Collier describes as “a significant reduction in the College’s fossil fuel investments”.

Specifically, the policy change seeks to reduce Balliol’s fossil fuel investments from 2.4% of its endowment to less than 1%, which equates to the divestment of at least £1.67 million of Balliol’s £119.1 million endowment. This divestment applies to fossil fuel extraction companies but not necessarily drilling equipment manufacturers or oil service companies. It is not only divestment from fossil fuels that is a marker of Balliol’s commitment to ecological sustainability; this is but one move in a broader climate change action plan which will examine how changes can be made to College operations in energy, waste, and food. For example, Balliol also plans to stop accepting donations from FFE companies.

The movement is significant for Balliol because “the College’s endowment provides a very significant proportion of our annual income, and is essential to Balliol’s ongoing support for scholarships, bursaries, fellowships, and the maintenance of the College’s historic buildings”. It is thus a bold move to introduce changes rather than stick to the safe status quo for which Balliol should be commended.

The decision stands in contrast to Oxford University Endowment Management. Whilst OUem has committed to avoid direct investments in coal and oil sands, the Socially Responsible Investment Committee has been prevented from instructing OUem “to divest its endowment from the top 200 companies involved in the exploration, ownership or extraction of fossil fuels unless it is financially prudent to do so”. Balliol joins colleges like St Hilda’s and Oriel in divesting their endowments from fossil fuels, putting more pressure on OUem to consider alternative investment practices, beyond that which is dogmatically ‘financially prudent’.

An Oxford spokesperson said the University’s socially responsible investment policy ensured its central investments decisions “consider social, environmental and political issues in maintaining ethical standards”.

Michael Beattie, one of Balliol JCR’s Environment and Ethics Representatives and a spokesperson for the Balliol Divestment Campaign, told The Oxford Blue that Balliol’s endowment could grow even quicker following the change. “Aside from a negligible admin cost to transfer some of the funds, the College should not see any notable change in return on their endowment.

Research by our own fund managers suggested that, had we divested several years ago, our return would have actually been slightly higher than we have seen without divestment. This is all without mentioning the risk of staying invested in fossil fuels in the potential carbon bubble, a threat which will become all the more real as climate action moves up the agenda of institutions and governments around the world.

Beattie was complimentary about how the College had behaved in the face of student pressure. “We only started this process less than a year ago, which is testament to how positive our relationship with College has been throughout this whole process.” He added that, “I think this commitment speaks for the whole of the Balliol community with its stress on the importance of strong climate action now; we’re all on the same page here.

Yet Beattie refuses to get ahead of himself, stressing that “this does not apply to the university in general though. Oxford University Endowment Management have repeatedly dismissed calls for divestment, a stark contrast to the example set on their front door by colleges like Wadham, St Hilda’s, Wolfson and now Balliol.

Even at Balliol, the achievement does not represent the end of the campaign. The next target is the current environmental policy, which was written as recently as 2017, but is now seen as “outdated and not ambitious enough”, according to the Balliol Divestment Campaign. Inspired by the Oxford SU’s Oxford Climate Action Plan, the student community is working with the College on writing a new climate action plan and is intended to forge a path to zero carbon.

Whilst many Oxford students have lobbied their college to reduce their exposure to fossil fuels, fewer have seen these efforts succeed. The news follows revelations from Fossil Free SJC that St John’s College has invested £8.1 million in Shell and BP and has maintained these investments in the face of vocal student opposition.

Balliol is just the fifth college, after St Hilda’s, Wadham, Wolfson, and Oriel, to acquiesce to student pressure and divest its endowment. Wolfson was particularly notable, they divested £42 million from “companies that derive a majority of their revenue from the exploration, ownership or extraction of thermal coal and oil sands” in 2015.

In the wider picture, Oxford ranks 45th in a sustainability league of UK universities compiled by People and Planet, a student campaigning organisation. Whilst Oxford has over £200 million in fossil fuels, over 70 other UK universities have committed themselves to divest, including Edinburgh, Oxford Brookes, and UCL. Campaigners can only hope that student success at Balliol will carve out a clearer path for even more Oxford colleges to follow suit, shifting their focus such that we work in harmony with rather than in opposition to our environment.

Additional reporting from Leo Nasskau.